Tea Meets Dinner

The Whole Leaf

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The sheer variety of flavor profiles in tea creates limitless potential for delicious food pairings, be it sweet or savory. Like all culinary adventures, beauty is in the eye of the beholder—or in this case, deliciousness is in the palate of the imbiber.

When I started Sanctuary T eight years ago, I did not realize the potential that tea had to transform meals. I had been an avid tea drinker and noticed a lack of restaurants that offered great food and great tea. Our goal was to be a sanctuary of tranquility away from the bustle of city life, centered around the rituals and sensory pleasures of tea. With great food and great tea in place, we began to experiment with ways to combine the two and enjoy tea as an ingredient in food, tea as a seasoning on food, and tea paired with food.

What we found was that just like the perfect pair of shoes can make the outfit, so the perfect cup of tea can make the meal. When tea is thoughtfully paired with food, the whole experience is elevated to greater than the sum of its parts.

Whether we realize it or not, some food pairings are already written comfortably into the culture of tea: Earl Grey and cream scones, Japanese green tea and sushi, jasmine tea with Chinese food.

You may not need convincing that tea tastes great with sweet treats, but if a glass of red wine seems better suited to a sizzling steak than a cup of hot tea, think again. The heat from the tea, combined with its tannins, melts the butteriness and fat in your mouth, mingling the two flavors without overpowering (think Lapsang souchong and a New York strip). For this reason, tea can make an extraordinary pairing with cheese, chocolate, or other dishes with significant oil, cream, or fat.

Although we firmly believe there are no “wrong” pairings, it will be worthwhile to put a little bit of thought into your tea pairing before you dive in. Here are some tips to help you create your own masterpiece:

1. There are three steps of tea pairing. First taste the food, let it linger in your mouth. Then wait thirty seconds and try the tea. Wait another thirty seconds and taste them together in quick succession. Tea really does change the way you experience the food and vice versa, but you’ll need to get a benchmark of each first before proceeding.

2. Balance the flavor of the food with the intensity of the tea. The more rich and flavorful the dish is, the more intense the tea should be and vice versa. The robust taste of imperial gunpowder green tea may be the perfect complement to a flavorful pork tenderloin, while the more delicate flavor of bai mu dan may be better suited to pan-seared scallops.

3. Use fatty foods to tone down the acidity, bitterness, and tannins in tea. In the pairing world, think of tannins as your friend. You know the cup of tea that you would add milk and sugar to? That’s the cup you want to pair with your burger and fries or your apple pie à la mode. Let the food be the milk-and-sugar to your cup of tea.

4. Sweetness in food diminishes the sweetness in tea. When you pair a sweet tea with a sweet dish, they kind of cancel each other out. So when we are pairing chocolates with tea for instance, we steer clear of the lychee’s of the world, and stick with either citrusy profiles or pure teas.

5. Consider pairing opposites—sweet with spicy. Just as the sweetness in food mutes the sweetness in tea, so opposite flavor profiles tend to enhance each other. If you don’t believe us, try rooibos chai tea with a classic cheesecake. Once you can speak again after such a sublime experience, you can let us know that you agree.

6. Bitterness in tea increases the perception of bitterness in food. By the same token that adding sugar to tea or coffee makes it seem less bitter, so pairing teas that are on the more fruity, floral or sweet side will make a dish seem less bitter. Instead of pairing a Ceylon black tea with an arugula salad, try Earl Grey to round out the bitterness of the dish.

While preparing tea is a bit more intricate than pouring a bottled beverage, it will certainly be a much more memorable experience for you and your guests than yet another glass of wine.

—Dawn Cameron operates Sanctuary T Restaurant in New York City.